Viewpoint -- Jobs As Job One

It's time to begin a great national discussion and consider a pre-emptive jobs policy.

Right now, just over eight months before this fall's U.S. presidential and congressional elections, the economy -- and specifically employment -- is the No. 1 political issue. It's no wonder. At the rate at which the U.S. economy generated jobs in February, it would take 10.3 years to match the number of jobs the economy shed as a result of the 2001 recession. More than 10 years -- that's conceivably three U.S. presidents from now. Nevertheless, no one can be certain whether jobs will be the dominant issue as voters go to the polls on Nov. 2. Issues have a way of changing as campaigns continue, as candidates put forth their positions and as outside events intervene. However, I hope jobs remain at the center of this year's campaigns, not because I expect President Bush or Senator Kerry or Ralph Nader or the hundreds of people running for the House and the Senate to come up with the perfect plan for putting people back to work and keeping them there. There won't be a perfect plan, in part because what might seem perfect now will be challenged by economic and political changes in the months and years ahead. There won't be a perfect plan because the jobs issues that the U.S. confronts now have been decades in the making. For instance, as far back as the 1960s, as Japan became a formidable international competitor in manufacturing, U.S. companies were worried about their profit margins and bottom lines, workers feared the loss of their jobs, and business magazines were writing cover stories that asked the question, "Is there still time to save U.S. industry?" I hope jobs remain a central issue of the 2004 campaigns, because the country needs to engage in a great discussion about the jobs the U.S. has lost and is losing, about the jobs the U.S. has created and is creating, about the changing nature of work and how best to prepare to adjust to change. "With [corporate] profits rising strongly, pressure to keep costs under control could ebb this year, ushering in slower productivity growth, but stronger job gains," economists at UBS Investment Research speculated not quite two months ago. Britain's Economist magazine this month chided Americans for lamenting the loss of jobs, pronounced them "mainly a cyclical affair," and confidently predicted that in the next year "or so" current productivity gains "will start to translate into more jobs." It's possible. But somehow, I don't believe it's likely. The growth in productivity gained from the capital investment boom of the 1990s coupled with the corporate financial discipline imposed by the recession of 2001 and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 seem to me to be more reflective of longer-term structural change than limited to a short-term cyclical happening. The core question, then, is what, as a nation, do we do? Answering that question involves, appropriately in an election year, examining, again, the proper role of government. Is the proper role essentially no role -- letting each person prepare for and pursue employment as he or she chooses. Or is the role of government to pick the most economically promising industries of the future and provide all sorts of irresistible incentives to spur people to seek jobs in them? Such questions are at the extremes. But they should be part of the great discussion, if only to expose their shortcomings. I would hope, however, that the great discussion would more productively get around to consideration of a kind of pre-emptive jobs policy for the country, a policy that is designed to give workers real tools to cope with change. Robert B. Reich, U.S. Secretary of Labor during President Bill Clinton's first term and now a professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, told IW last year he would rather have communities across the country focus on providing the educational opportunities for workers to gain and maintain "skill sets" than focus on first attracting and then retaining specific industries. Yet the kind of education that would make acquiring such skills possible should not be put off to the time people are ready to enroll in community colleges and similar educational institutions. Continuing education and the learning skills that make coping with change possible really need to begin with parents before a youngster even enters school. "For less than the cost of the recent tax cuts for only the top 1% of earners, our nation could have afforded a universal preschool and after-school initiative and a dramatic effort to encourage more young, disadvantaged Americans to seek and afford a college degree," Gene Sperling, an economic adviser to Clinton and now at the Center for American Progress, wrote this month in a Washington Post op-ed page piece. His words had an anti-Bush edge to them. But his ideas about pre-K and post-secondary education deserve to be included in the great jobs discussion. So, too, does reform of trade adjustment assistance, a well-meaning federal program designed to help workers displaced by foreign competition. Thirty years of experience with the program leave little doubt that by the time workers receive any benefits the assistance is too little and too late. Again, a Gene Sperling thought: " . . . We need a system that allows someone to pick up a phone, call a single number and get clear instructions on all the available dislocation and relocation services." And he would not limit that phone call to those whose job losses were trade related. "Access should be universal, not dependent on whether a job was lost to trade, technological change or a weak economy." Let's talk about it. Change happens. The United States and American workers cannot isolate themselves from the loss of jobs in some industries even as new companies and jobs are being created in such fields as biotechnology and nanotechnology. The country has yet to have a great discussion about jobs, a kind of town meeting that spans the continent and extends to Alaska and Hawaii. It's time to work together to see that the discussion begins. John S. McClenahen is an IndustryWeek senior editor based in Washington, D.C.

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